Kent Archaeological Review extract

The Pictish Floriated Rods.
by lain M S Donnell.

The meaning of the symbols incised or carved in relief on stone, occurring mainly in the north-east of Scotland but also in the Orkneys, the Shetlands and the Western Isles has not so far been deciphered, except in so far as the symbols are of Christian inspiration. These symbols are considered to be of Pictish origin and to range in date from the 7th to the 10th century AD.

Of the 307 instances of the occurrence of the symbols referred to by R B K Stevenson, 119 include a feature which is described as a 'floriated rod.'See Footnote [1] The symbol of most common occurrence is a crescent crossed by a floriated V-rod. Figure 1 shows the type which is generally considered to be the earliest and from which, therefore the others have descended. See Footnote [2] Despite the comparatively late date attributed to it, it has a markedly 'La TÚne' flavour. There is undoubtedly a process of change discernible in the symbols, but how far this can be said to be a degeneration and how far a development is a question which has other ramifications and which I hope to deal with in a future discussion.

The other symbols are the serpent (figure 2), the notched rectangle (figure 3) and the double disc (figure 4), all crossed by Z-rods. The crescent never has a Z-rod and the other symbols never occur with a V-rod, but occasionally a straight rod is found, and the possible significance of this feature is mentioned later.

According to J Anderson, nothing analogous to the use of the Z-rod is known, but he considers that the V-rod resembles the two sceptres held by figures in 9th and 10th century manuscripts.See Footnote [3] Stevenson's view is that the entire crescent symbol resembles nothing real. See Footnote [4] S Cruden states that most of the symbols are abstract designs; that possibly some represent real objects, but they are so stylised as to bear little resemblance to the originals.See Footnote [5]

It is arguable, however, that both V and Z-rods are representations of an arrow. It may be objected that the Picts would have been perfectly capable of depicting an arrow had they wished to do so, as is evidenced by their skill in delineating objects and animals, but as has been mentioned, there is a considerable amount of stylisation evident in the symbols. Anderson refers to the coventionalised appearance of the floriated terminals.See Footnote [6]

DRAWING: Pictish symbols of the 7th to 10th centuries AD.

Pictish symbols of the 7th to 10th centuries AD.

The arguments for the rods being, in fact, representations of an arrow, may be stated as follows:

The Terminals.

In the examples which are usually considered to be of earlier date, the terminals are differentiated. One of the terminals, usually the right-hand one, can be distinguished as the head of an arrow, and the other, usually the left-hand one, as the flight. In the fragments found at Birsay, the tip of the right-hand terminal is similar to the head of the spear carried by the first of the three warriors depicted underneath (figure 5) I. Henderson refers to the 'arrowhead' terminal, but this is not a considered opinion, so far as the present theory is concerned, because she refers to the opposite terminal as a 'fishtail,' and then only in connection with the V-rod.See Footnote [7]

Pictish symbols of the 7th to 10th centuries A.D.

The spirals at the bottom of the head may represent barbs, although identical spirals often appear in the opposite terminal. It is possible that the spirals have a deeper significance, with analogies traceable in the symbols and elsewhere.

It is suggested that the terminal opposite to the head can be distinguished as the feathered flight of an arrow, in some instances, with a nock at the end of the shaft The spirals at the front of the flight may reperesent the curling of the feathers. With the double disc, both the head and the flight tend to be elongated, but this is probably for stylistic and aesthetic reasons.

In figure 6, the flight is represented by a mere tick, so extreme is the stylisation, am in figure 7, by a delta. Figure 8 shows an interesting use of similar but reversed line to indicate head and flight. Figure 9 is, it is submitted, a very clear representation o an arrow, albeit in a 'right-to-left' direction.

The Angle.

The angle has been described as being occupied by a lens similar to those seen on the hanging bowl from Lullingstone.See Footnote [8] While this is so, the feature may be a representation of a break in the arrow-shaft. It has the appearance of a 'green-stick' fracture, the inner surface being bent but unbroken, whereas the outer surface has two ends projecting at an angle to each other.

Straight Forms.

These are not of frequent occurrence, but they are identifiable. Figure 10 appears to be a type of crescent, and it occurs in association with a double disc and Z-rod. Figure 11 is accompanied by a crescent and double disc, both with rods.

Degenerate Forms.

In forms considered to be of later date, very often there is no differentiation between the terminals. However, in figure 12 the head and flight are distinguishable, as they are in figure 13 which is an interesting straight form. Anderson saw in this example a blossoming rod, on a Christian analogy.See Footnote [9]

The long bow was a favourite weapon with the Picts, and it appears that they used the cross-bow also. The arrow in the symbols, however, if arrow it be, is clearly no ordinary one. All four types of symbol referred to, occur also with out the rods and why it was necessary to 'difference' them in this fashion is not apparent. The arrow has often been considered to be possessed of magical qualities, and perhaps the Pictish arrow is such a one.See Footnote [10] Or, following a classical analogy, it may be intended to represent the rush of the wind or the flash of lightening. A more mundane explanation may be that it is a masculine symbol, in contradistinction to the mirror and comb which occur frequently and are obviously feminine.

The later undifferentiated terminals often have a 'fleur-de-lys' appearance hence, no doubt the appellation, 'floriated,' but whether they had a part in the origin of this design, or were themeslves a product of its influence, is impossible to tell. Certainly, a legacy of the earlier type of terminal seems to occur in ornamental metal work, particularly in the hands of clocks and the indicators of weather-vanes. Figure 14 shows the detail on a contemporary door-hinge strap, resembling figure 12.


Footnote 1.

'Pictish Art' in The Problem of the Picts editor F T Wainwright Edinburgh 1955 98 figure 14. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 2.

PP 104; I Henderson The Picts London 1967 112. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 3.

Introduction to The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland Edinburgh 1903 xxxiv. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 4.

PP 99. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 5.

The Early Christian and Pictish Monuments of Scotland Edinburgh 1964-5. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 6.

ECM xxxiv. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 7.

P 114. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 8.

PP 104. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 9.

ECM xxxiv. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 10.

Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics editor J Hastings 1919 i 818 iii 513 iv 70. Return to the paragraph.


  • Figure 1 was first described by J M Davidson in Proceedings of the Archaeological Society of Scotland LXXVII (1942-43) 26-30.
  • Figures 2, 3, 6 and 7 are after R B K Stevenson in 'Pictish Art', in The Problem of the Picts, Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., Edinburgh, 1955.
  • Figures 4, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 13 are after J. Romilly Allen in The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1903.
  • Figures 5 and 12 are details from stones in the National Museum of Antiquities, Scotland.
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